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By Dan Weiss
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Arctic Monkeys . Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not . Domino
Arctic Monkeys are the most cynical band in the world. Their surge to prominence in the U.K. (and hipster notoriety in the U.S.) has been guided by an amazingly successful hype campaign: Relentless Internetworking, MP3-sharing and toilet-circuit gigs have led to countless articles about how the Internet has “changed pop music.” Yet in interviews the band are keen to emphasize their down-to-earth northern roots — “What’s a MySpace? What’s a hype?” Note: Arctic Monkeys recently completed a series of sellout dates in the U.S. on the strength of theirMySpace page; and their LP just became the fastest-selling debut album in U.K. history. Apparently the Monkeys now feel the need to obfuscate, lest the truth damage their rock mythology. That’s like pretending you met your girlfriend in the pub rather than online in case people take the piss.
Musically, Arctic Monkeys exist in a lineage of British social-commentary rock that includes the Smiths (ostensibly), Pulp (lyrically and spiritually) and the Fall (vaguely) — all filtered through the current vogue for Brit-boys with guitars so effectively that the group could easily seem like an A&R man’s wet dream. Their U.K. album sleeve noticeably neglects to include songwriting credits. Accusations of at best cynicism and at worst blatant prefabrication are inevitable.
So, are they manufactured? Who gives a shit? What matters is the songs. In that regard, lyrically, Arctic Monkeys are remarkable — although I can’t decide if that’s because they are inspired or abominable. There’s something alluring about singer Alex Turner’s accentuated South Yorkshire drawl; his observational, colloquial approach seems willfully parochial. There’s an air of the downtrodden, semi-educated provincial dreamer caught in a dichotomy of impulses, between the poet and the football hooligan (“Got a chase last night/From men with truncheons dressed in hats/We didn’t do that much wrong/Still ran away though for the laugh/Just for the laugh?.?.?.” [“Riot Van”]). That these lyrics are delivered with an impassioned velocity that makes Eminem look like a tardy old man adds a level of hysteria that lifts Arctic Monkeys well beyond their peers.
The problem is that there’s little exoticism or musical creativity in evidence on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, especially when juxtaposed with the work of last year’s early hyped young things, Bloc Party. Arctic Monkeys offer much less high-minded fare by comparison — just as dance-floor friendly but less beautiful, less aspirational, less pretentiously obtuse. These four Sheffield teens have no sense of the “other” about them, no sense of wonder or scope, proffering instead a simplistic take on danceable garage rock that anyone could produce if they practiced enough. Of course, for thousands of young people, this will make them much more identifiable than the glamorous Kele & Co.
The band’s determined parochialism is evident in song titles like “Mardy Bum” (about a moody girlfriend), and in the fact that they named an instrumental B-side (“Chun-Li’s Spinning Bird Kick”) after an ancient video game that lost cultural capital nearly a decade ago. It’s an interesting tune, actually: a clumsy, repetitive “funk” instrumental that smacks of white kids who’ve had no contact with actual funk — or hip-hop or reggae or dancehall or R&B, for that matter — but who think they ought to be able to do something funky by repeating a riff with a backbeat for three minutes. It raises a question: What would Arctic Monkeys sound like if they tapped into their locale beyond lyrics, if they took note of Sheffield’s long history of industrial and electronic experimentation? Monkeys inhabit a world that exists after school discos and without the possibility of university or gainful employment. A world where you’re too young to get into clubs, too geeky to get a girl, too spotty to get a boy, too useless to get anything else. A world of blunted romance and frayed seams. There’s real anger and disillusion: at prostitution, urban decay, petty crime, scumbags, who they are and where they come from. It’s a working-class cultural wasteland where “There’s only music/So that there’s new ring tones” (“A Certain Romance”), where love is dead and our heroes, such as they are, are desperate for romance. Being taken home by the police, being beaten up, getting trashed just to forget, trying to fall in love but not knowing how. They’re very, very young, possessed of naiveté enough to drop references straight from English literature texts into their couplets (rhyming “Montagues or Capulets” with “DJ sets”) and making allusion to Duran Duran (“Your name isn’t Rio/But I don’t care for sand”) in the U.K. No. 1 “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” — a song that, despite protestations, is a bona fide and deserving pop smash, catchy like bird flu and only a touch less deadly.
If you’re after a moment of transcendence, a substitute for a falsified God, something to make you feel awed in the face of beauty, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. But if you’re a teen in Torquay and life is shitty, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not will probably be the most important thing in the world. And if all you seek is a visceral thrill, a tangible surge in the zeitgeist that lasts a second and then passes without trace?.?.?.?maybe they’re for you. I can’t imagine revisiting this record in 10 years time for any purpose other than anthropological. It doesn’t matter.